Library Theatre Company
The Lowry, Salford
Chris Honer directs not only the first production in the Library Theatre Company's new season but the first since it left its home at Central Library in Manchester with Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at The Lowry in Salford.
The title comes from character Hannah's assertion that the English landscape was invented by gardeners who were copying painters who in turn were copying classical literature, which takes us back to Virgil's idyllic pastoral land of Arcadia. The play takes in art, literature, mathematics, history and landscape gardening and somehow weaves a compelling and very funny narrative around them all that takes place simultaneously in two different times, the early nineteenth century and the present day, at the country house of the Coverly family.
In the earlier timeline, Septimus Hodge, who was at school with Lord Byron, is tutor to young Thomasina Coverly who shows great promise as a mathematician that she is destined never to fulfil. Septimus is challenged to a duel by Ezra Chater for a dalliance with his wife, and then again later for giving his poetry a bad review. Meanwhile Lady Croom's landscape architect Richard Noakes is proposing, to her horror, to convert her Georgian neoclassical garden into one in the 'picturesque' style littered with fake ruins and a hermitage without a hermit.
In modern times, author Hannah Jarvis is researching the hermitage for a book at the Coverly's house courtesy of fellow academic in the field of mathematics Valentine Coverly when academic Bernard Nightingale, who wrote a very negative review of her last book, comes to ask for her help to link the house with Lord Byron and a possible fatal duel. Of course there is plenty of dramatic irony as the audience sees both what actually happened in the nineteenth century and what the modern academics think happened from piecing together sparse evidence as well as from looking at the earlier events with the benefit of two centuries of hindsight.
Arcadia's construction is incredibly rich and complex. It alternates between the different time zones until it culminates in a scene where both exist simultaneously with the modern characters dressing in Regency costumes for Chloë Coverly's party. There is patterning in the events in the different timelines, in the link between the subjects they are discussing and their lives and in some of the recurring themes (such as younger students with crushes on older teachers). It leaves you with plenty to continue thinking about when you leave the theatre about maths, science, art, literature and the world of academia. But the brilliance of Stoppard is that he wraps around all of this a plot that keeps you wanting to see more like in a good adventure as well as keeping you laughing for a large proportion of the time.
Within regular Library designer Judith Croft's faithful rendering of a picturesque room in a large country house, Chris Honer's production is perfectly paced and very well performed. Recent Drama Centre graduate Beth Park is wonderful as Thomasina, while Charlie Anson gets across the dry wit and charm of Septimus very well. Leigh Symonds is very good at playing the pathetic character of cuckolded Ezra and gets across all the humour.
As Bernard Nightingale, James Wallace is more smarm than charm and gets a lot of humour from the character's arrogance and blind ambition, while Cate Hamer is far more grounded and natural as Hannah. Alasdair Craig is also totally convincing as the rather shy but brilliant academic Valentine. There are also very able performances from the rest of this large cast: Christopher Wright as butler Jellaby, Richard Heap as gardener Noakes, Emma Gregory as Lady Croom, Peter Barich as Captain Brice, Caroline Bartleet as Chloë and Joe Shalom (played at some performances by Felix Donaldson) as the two young boys Gus and Augustus Coverly.
This is a very polished and entertaining production of a really clever and thoughtful but accessible and funny play by Stoppard and is highly recommended.
To 9th October, 2010
Reviewer: David Chadderton